Some 23 years ago, I went to sleep fearing the rumor of war, and awoke to find war had broken out. In the hours between dusk and dawn on January 16-17, 1991, the United States, at the head of a mighty international coalition, sent waves of cruise missiles and aircraft into Saddam Hussein's Iraq in an effort to compel his withdrawal from Kuwait. These attacks had been planned for months, highly choreographed ballets which saw resource "A" applied against target "B," to achieve outcome "C."
The aerial assault went off like clockwork, and the initial reports spoke of tremendous success. The reality is that they were, by and large, ineffective. The F-117 stealth fighters and Navy and Air Force cruise missiles that led the attack either missed their targets, failed to drop their bombs, or ended up destroying buildings that had long ago been emptied of anything of value. "Strike Package A," the vaunted counter-SCUD aerial assault into western Iraq, missed all of its fixed targets, and failed to destroy or interdict a single mobile target. This was a pattern that was to repeat itself throughout the 48-day aerial campaign.
I was in General Schwartzkopf's underground command post in Riyadh on the morning of January 17, part of a battle damage assessment team trying to piece together a snapshot of our military accomplishments that had transpired overnight. Later, as a UN weapons inspector inside Iraq, I was able to speak to the men in charge of the buildings and facilities we were trying to destroy that night. "You Americans are very good at blowing up concrete," General Amer Rashid, the Deputy Director of the Military Industrial Commission, told me. "And we are very good at pouring concrete. But if you give us enough forewarning, there won't be anything but concrete in the places you bomb."
This was indeed the case. On the morning of January 17, 1991, I spent hours scanning images of dozens of buildings and structures, looking for the tell-tale signs of a bomb hit that would signal "objective achieved," with no regard whatsoever for what was actually inside the structure. As a UN weapons inspector, I spent days cataloguing the sophisticated machinery that had been evacuated from these very buildings to remote sheds and warehouses days and weeks before the bombs fell. For all the planning and preparation that went into the opening attacks of the Gulf War, in the end they accomplished but very little.
I went to sleep fearing the rumor of war. The unrest in Syria and Iraq, brought on by the actions of the Islamic state (formerly known as the Islamic State in Syria, or ISIS), was threatening to spill over into the region at large. I awoke to find that the United States had, in concert with five other Arab countries, launched a concerted strike against the Islamic State inside Syria, expanding an air campaign that had up until then been limited to targets in Iraq. War was, once again, thrust upon us.
This attack had been weeks in the planning, with high profile hearings and consultations taking place in Washington, DC and in the capitals of Europe and the Middle East. The Islamic State, having demonstrated its media savvy with slick Internet videos depicting its various heinous acts, would have obviously known such an attack was coming. Given that its ranks are filled with veterans of the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003-2011 American invasion and occupation of Iraq, it can be assumed that the Islamic State is well-versed in the effects of various American air-delivered munitions and their method of delivery. Having tracked American drones and reconnaissance aircraft overflights of Syria in the past weeks, the potential areas of interest were likewise well known to the Islamic State. As was the case in the Gulf War, I am certain the United States and its Arab allies succeeded at blowing up concrete. I am equally as certain that anything of value that might have been housed in such structures, whether human or machine, had long ago departed.
Despite the pounding Iraq took over the course of 43 days of concentrated aerial bombardment in 1991, after the war ended it retained significant strategic capability, either intact or able to be reconstituted in a short period of time. Air power alone did not then, and cannot today, solve a problem as complex as the one confronting the world vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein's Iraq (in 1991, and again in 2003) and the Islamic State's so-called "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq today. Nor are "boots on the ground" an adequate solution, even in conjunction with overwhelming air support. While the coalition assembled during the Gulf War proved adept at closing with and destroying the dug-in Iraqi Army, the elite Republican Guard divisions that represented the focus of the coalition air and ground forces emerged from that conflict intact and fully capable of continued combat operations. Likewise, the armed forces of Iraq were never fully defeated in 2003, nor did they ever surrender. Instead, they melted away overnight, part of a larger long-term strategy of resistance to American occupation initiated by the Iraqi Ba'ath Party, and sustained over the years by that organization and a myriad of other resistance groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to the Islamic State). Once ensconced among a sympathetic and supportive population, these surviving forces provided the kernel of resistance that was never defeated, and which serves as an important element of the combat power of the Islamic State today.
The Obama administration has yet to articulate a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State that goes beyond the notion of simply "defeating" them. If history is a judge, it is hard to comprehend how the air strikes that just transpired over Syria -- or any combination of airstrikes, over any length of time -- will, in and of themselves, solve the problems manifested by the existence of the Islamic State. Killing men who willingly seek martyrdom is like blowing up concrete -- there will always be more who are willing to die, just as there will always be someone willing to pour more concrete for us to blow up.
The key to victory over the Islamic State is to be able to get at what is, figuratively and literally, inside the building. In the case of the Islamic State, this means coming to grips with the reality that the "caliphate" is more than an artificial construct of so-called "terrorists." The notion of a "caliphate" has been a vibrant part of the Sunni Arab world since the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate after the First World War. The Ottoman Empire, and the caliphate it sustained and supported, was far more than the Turkish entity portrayed by the west. It was a force of Islam, one that found adherents throughout the Muslim world, including the Arabs. The end of the Ottoman Empire did not bring with it the end of the romance of the caliphate among Sunni Arabs, and the promise it held of a greater Islamic state ruled by Shari'a law. Indeed, many Arab nationalists who fought on the side of the west against the Turks hoped for the creation of a greater Arab state centered on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina which would replicate the form and function of the Ottoman Caliphate.
This was not to be, and the artificial nation states created by the British and French from the Arab lands of the former Ottoman Empire -- Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon -- only exacerbated the frustration of a people -- Sunni Arabs -- who have been collectively disenfranchised as a result. One of the unintended consequences of America's nearly quarter of a century conflict with Iraq is the extent to which the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent effort to isolate and eliminate Syria's Bashar al-Assad has detrimentally impacted the psyche of the Sunni Arab populations of both nations. Thanks to two-plus decades of disruptive American policy toward Iraq and Syria, a population of more than 20 million people no longer identify with the ruling governments in place in either Baghdad or Damascus. This not only hamstrings any policy built around engendering stability through inclusive governance in either capital, but it also ensures that any such policy will only highlight the extent to which America and its proxies are disassociated when it comes to defining and pursuing any viable center of gravity among the Sunni Arab populations of Iraq and Syria today.
The notion of an Arab "caliphate" is not a new phenomenon fabricated from thin air by the radical jihadists of the Islamic State. Rather, it has existed in the psyche of the Sunni Arabs of Mesopotamia and the Levant for more than a century. The essence of the successes enjoyed by the Islamic State to date centers not on any wide-spread embrace of their radical vision, but rather the fact that their movement gives voice to a dream that has long been dampened by the forces of the west and their autocratic regional allies. The Obama administration has stated that the recent strikes against Syria are but the beginning of a more comprehensive campaign to defeat the Islamic State. But bombs and missiles, while adept at blowing up concrete and creating martyrs, have never been successful when it comes to eradicating ideas.
Void of any competing ideology, it is hard to see how this new war on the Islamic State will ever succeed in supplanting the visionary dream of a Sunni Arab Caliphate that resides in the hearts and minds of so many Sunni Arabs living in Syria and Iraq today. On the contrary, it is likely that this campaign will succeed only in fanning the flames of the radical Sunni fringe, empowering them in a way nothing else could. America's allies in this effort -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates -- are a living manifestation of the kind of autocratic rulers who have earned the contempt of many of the disenfranchised Sunni Arabs who currently flock to the Islamic State. These autocrats, more than anyone, understand the dangers posed by the concept -- and reality -- of a Sunni Caliphate, since it is their very survival that is at stake.
This is one fight the United States, having committed itself to, cannot simply walk away from. The ramifications of retreat would be dire and virtually uncontainable. It is also a fight the United States is poorly equipped to deal with successfully. Bombing cannot, and will not, deliver success. Nor will boots on the ground, even if America was disposed to do so. What is needed is a competing ideology that resonates not with America's erstwhile Arab allies, but rather the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria. The Obama administration has yet to articulate anything that remotely competes with the vision of a Sunni Caliphate. Unless the policy makers who authorized the use of military force against Syria are able to do so, and soon, America's new Syrian adventure may very well prove to be the death knell for a Middle East whose basic construct was engendered by European Empire, and sustained by American Imperialism, for the past century.
The United States spent a quarter century bombing, invading and occupying Iraq to rid itself of Saddam Hussein, and now we can only dream of having such a strong, inclusive secular leader. In bombing Syria, the United States seems to have embarked on a similarly open-ended campaign to eliminate the Islamic State, and the vision of a caliphate it embraces. Who knows what will exist in its place in five, ten or even twenty five years. The American public should be rightfully fearful of any policy maker who claims the gift of prophesy, for in the words of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, today we may speak as children, but soon we must put away our childish things, and view the past through a glass, darkly.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine intelligence officer who served on the staff of General Norman Schwartzkopf during the Gulf War and as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 until 1998. He has written several books on US policy, including his most recent, Dangerous Ground, published by Nation books.